commute · cycling

Adventures on a folding bike!

Last month, I wrote about why I ride, the social justice edition. I focused on the ways in which riding brings me closer to the earth, to other humans, and to our shared entanglements on the road (and elsewhere). The bike, I argued, is a way for us to stay grounded in our commonalities, to recognize our different needs together, and to become more aware of the needs of our shared home, the earth.

For me, part of that last item has to do with changing the way I commute to work. My campus office is about 125km from my front door, and in order to manage that distance I used to drive to and from twice a week. (I’m fortunate to be able to work about 60% of the time at home.) I quickly discovered that driving was more arduous than I’d imagined (focusing on the road for 1.5 hours, at 120kph, is stressful: who knew?). So about a year ago I decided to start riding the train.

That worked fine, until the weather made it less than pleasant to walk the 5 or so kilometres from the station to my office along the riverside path. (One terrible winter day I discovered that the path was covered in about 4 feet of snow, uncleared, but having descended into the valley I had no choice but to do the portage. That was my workout for the day!) I began using the bus to get to and from the station/my office, but when I wanted to add in a visit to Paul, my and Tracy’s personal trainer, or my elderly parents in the west end of town, things got tricky. I discovered the buses don’t sync up well, and outer-ring-to-outer-ring locales aren’t served by direct routes very often, if at all. Cabs were an option, but seemed pricey as a regular choice.

So this past summer I decided that the best way to ensure I could continue commuting by train, and indeed commute much more by train (last winter it was about 40% train, 60% car, mostly because sometimes the ease of the latter got the better of me), was to buy a folding bike. One August morning I found a sale on my preferred model at Cate’s local bike shop, so I got the commuter service into the city and made the leap.

Here’s the result: Titania, my Tern Link D8:

(Images of a folding bicycle, open, blue and black in colour; in one, Kim stands proudly in the shop with her green helmet on, holding the handlebars. In another, the bike is on a train platform with a green and white GO train in the background. I want to pause here to recognize my privilege in affording this new piece of gear, which came in at around $1000CDN. I saved for it using my monthly commuter budget.) 

Now, folding bikes aren’t cheap. Sam has the amazing Brompton, the Cadillac (or maybe the Lexus? The Mercedes?) of folding bikes. Her job is full to the brim of travel, and her knee issues mean a very easy to fold and unfold, quite light and very versatile bike are required for her to do her job effectively. For me, the Tern was the budget option: it suits my needs well because it has a rolling adapter that I purchased as part of the sale, and I can pull it from my car to the train and back like luggage. (This is also great for airports, I’ll add.) It’s on balance larger and heavier than the Brompton, but the trade-off is that it has exceptionally solid, almost regular-size bike features, and I notice literally no difference between it and my upright Dutch commuter bike. (In fact, I think the Tern is faster and more stable on hills.)

(The above is a video showing three characters from the BBC satire, W1A, “arriving in tandem” at work on their Bromptons. It’s a spoof on the poshness of the bikes, their status symbol value. The narrator voice is David Tennant. The deep voice is Hugh Skinner, who plays an intern who has somehow got himself a Brompton anyway; the higher voice is Jason Watkins as Simon, humble-bragging about his new carbon-fibre Brompton. If you don’t know the series check it out!) 

I’ve now been commuting with Titania for a month. How’s it gone? Fairly well overall, though there has been a learning curve. Here are my top three take-away lessons thus far.

  1. Just because it’s a folding bike doesn’t mean it’s utterly simple and totally intuitive, with instant swanning through subway stations and the like. On my first trip into Toronto at rush hour (when regular bikes aren’t allowed on the commuter train), I discovered just how heavy it is to run with a folding bicycle. I had forgotten to set up the roller option, and I was late to the train. I dashed, Titania at my left, bobbing about and staining my calf with chain grease. I shouted desperately at the platform staff: “please don’t leave without me!!!” In the end they shut the doors as I arrived, and then took pity and re-opened them for me. I spent the whole ride into town sweaty, headachy, and sore. Lesson learned: always have the bike set up on the easiest-to-maneouvre setting for your next outing. Keep it in the front hall for ease, too.
  2. Unfolding a folding bike may be simple, but it’s not necessarily THAT simple. I’d practiced in the shop, of course, and at home once or twice. But then two weeks elapsed before I used it for work. When I arrived at my station, disembarked and began to unfold it, I realized I’d forgotten some basics. I managed to turn the handlebars to the wrong way, and rode about 100m with them backwards before realizing. Luckily, I did not fall over! Lesson learned: practice folding and unfolding it at home a few different times over several days, because when you’re in public, it’s embarrassing and potentially dangerous to screw up the basics.
  3. All kinds of weather happen when you are commuting by bike; you will discover this when you least expect it! It was a crazy hot morning last Tuesday, the last day of full-on summer in Southern Ontario. 30+C (about 90F), and HUMID AS HICKETTY HECK. I put on a light summer dress and packed my workout gear in my backpack for later. THEN, around 3pm, the sky darkened. And it opened up. By the time I had to ride to yoga, it was raining gently, but there was flash flooding all along the bike path I use to get from campus to downtown. I had a few episodes of “wheee!” through puddles, channeling my inner Sam, but when I arrived at yoga my arse was soaked, and the underside of Titania was lined with grit. It took about an hour the next day to clean her fully, and worst of all, I spent most of yoga rather uncomfortable. Lesson learned: buy the fenders straight away, and check the forecast! Also: use the nifty rain pouch that comes with the bike’s fanny pack; it will keep your phone completely dry.

Readers: do any of you have folding bike war stories? Or bike-commute war stories? Please share!

commute · cycling · gear

Am I a cyclist yet?

If you’re a regular reader, you might know I bought a new bike a little while ago. Its delayed arrival tested my patience, but since I finally got it, I’ve been enjoying it very, very much. Here it is:

Bettina’s light blue bike leaning attractively against a rather unattractive garage door.

Before I took the plunge on buying a bike, I did some fairly exhaustive research. I didn’t want to sink a lot of money into something I wouldn’t enjoy. (What can I say, I was raised in the Southwest of Germany, home to the (in)famously loath-to-spend “Swabian housewife“. An icky and sexist stereotype if there ever was one, but nevertheless, something must have stuck.) I asked my bike-savvy colleagues. I interrogated my equally bike-savvy co-bloggers. I interviewed a friend who purchased my bike’s predecessor model a few years ago. Eventually, I settled on a gravel bike: I wanted something versatile that could take on my pot hole-riddled commute as well as, potentially next season, a first stab at a triathlon. I’m extremely pleased with my decision. My Cucuma Casca is a joy to ride!

I’m so smitten with it, I want to ride it all day long, everyday, to the point where this is slightly endangering my half-marathon training (a topic for another post). It is so light and nimble, and so almost-effortlessly fast. It makes riding up the hill to work actually enjoyable. Luckily, once I had placed my order, my partner got a bit jealous and purchased a gravel bike of his own, so now we both have a joint new hobby and I have a partner in crime! Just this past Sunday, we went off on a nice long ride, making the most of the wonderful late summer we’ve been having. Here’s my partner, trundling along on our latest adventure:

A cyclist on a bike path alongside a river with his back turned to the camera. The sky is blue and the path is part awash with sunlight, part overshadowed by trees.

What I do now is a very different type of riding than what I’ve ever done before. Here’s my old pair of wheels, which I still use for city commuting when I know I’m going to leave my bike locked up somewhere unattended for a longish period of time, like at the train station:

A black commuter bike with a basket on the rear rack, snow in the background

As you can see, old bike is very much a city commuter. It has eight gears and is fairly heavy. It has taken me on some longer rides as well, but it certainly isn’t speedy or good at mountains. For my current commute, I need “good at mountains”, and I want (at least somewhat) “speedy” for longer rides and the aforementioned potential triathlon. So far, I’ve done several longish rides, the longest being last Sunday’s 67 kilometres, lots of commutes to work, 5.5km each way, and a couple of rides to the pool for swim practice, which at 12 km each way is further away than it sounds.

Does that make me a cyclist now?

If your definition of cyclist is “a person who rides a bike with some frequency”, I’ve actually been one for a long time, since I was a kid. But if your definition is “a person who rides a bike for the sake of riding a bike in a sporty fashion”, then I’m essentially a complete newbie. I don’t use clipless pedals (yet?). At 40mm, my tires are way too thick for a proper “roadie”. I put fenders on my bike first thing, although they are the easily removable kind, should I tire of them. I’ve learned to appreciate the padding in cycling shorts and the pockets and longer back of a cycling jersey, although I don’t always wear one. I’m planning to try my hand at basic bike care myself, rather than letting others (my partner or the shop) sort it out. I’m planning to try out thinner tires next season. I’m ridiculously excited about my new sport. It’s a new adventure and I’m keen to see where it goes!

Bettina wearing a pink top, black bike shorts, gloves, sunglasses, a small trail running/cycling backpack, and a helmet, with her blue bike in the shade of a tree in a park.

I’m a cyclist, but a different kind than I used to be.

cycling · fitness · fashion · commute

The femmiest bike helmet ever

While riding my Brompton in Vancouver I realized my road cycling helmet didn’t quite match my bike. You could tell I was a road cyclist riding a commuting bike. That’s okay but I was also riding the Brompton in skirts and dresses and sandals. No road cycling shoes either.

The pink Brompton requires a different cycling aesthetic. I wanted something cute. I googled fashionable adult bike helmets and found sparkly ones. I have a bit of a thing for things that glitter and sparkle. I ordered one and I love it.

I know it’s a luxury. So too is the Brompton. But I can’t walk very far these days and I’m happiest, more joyful if I’m moving. I’m riding the Brompton to meetings, taking it into movie theatres. We even went to dinner together, me and my Brompton. So, for me, in this context, matching matters. The Brompton is about fun and about an active lifestyle, not really a serious fitness thing.

I know that here on the blog and in my book reviews, I’ve been critical of the “look cute” imperative. Tracy likewise tackled the “pinkification” of women’s athletics six years ago. You might think something has changed but it hasn’t. Not really.

I’m still all about choice. If you find looking good while working out a thing you enjoy, go for it. I’m still wearing scruffy t-shirts to the gym. But the Brompton, for me, is about everyday movement. And sometimes, when it comes to everyday, I’m enjoy pink and cute and sparkly.

My new helmet is made by Sawako. I’m wearing it to Pride festivities this weekend. When I shared photos of my new helmet on social media this week, Danielle from Guelph’s College of Arts social media and communications team commented with this gif. It’s a motto is can get behind.

commute · cycling

Riding in Vancouver: Sam has three thoughts about bike lanes

I visited Vancouver for the American Philosophical Association (APA) Meeting last week and the weather was perfect. It rained during the conference and then on the last day the sun emerged from behind the fog and the clouds. Yes! I even got that rarest of things, a Vancouver sun burn. Sarah and I rented bikes and noodled through Stanley Park and then set off on several about town journeys. We loved the bike lanes in Vancouver.

Here’s a few quick thoughts about our bike lane experiences.

1. Commuting versus doing things: We loved that bike lanes weren’t just for commuters. They didn’t just go from the suburbs to downtown–as many bike lanes do. Instead, they allowed traffic in and around city neighbourhoods. I thought about this in connection to Rebecca Kukla‘s APA talk, “Mapping movement in urban space” which talked about the tension between neighourhoods as places to be lived in versus neighbourhoods as places to bike through and the importance of mapping data. (I have thoughts here about Strava’s heat maps which are sometimes used as information about routes cyclists take and are used as data to inform bike lane planning. But of course, only “serious” cyclists use Strava and so the data leaves out information about slow riders, the cargo bikers etc. )

2. Signage: We also loved the signs that told us whether roads were closed to all traffic or just cars, and that cyclists but not cars could turn right on red. Thank you Vancouver!

3. Separate from pedestrians too: Some but not all of the bike lanes were completely separate from cars. That’s nice. But it was especially nice that they were often also physically separate from pedestrian pathways.

I’m definitely riding in Vancouver the next time I go. And uh, oh, I’m bike browsing again!

Image description: Smiling Sam with her rental bike in front of a sign that says “Road closed, except bicycles.”

Image description: Pink tree in full bloom. It’s spring in Vancouver!

Image description: Samantha and Sarah selfie in front of Earth Day parade on Commercial Drive

Image description: View from seawall bike path in Stanley Park

Image description: Red and white hotel bikes

Image description: Blue and green rental bikes

Image description; Sad bike in the sea

commute · cycling · snow · winter

Happy belated winter bike to work day! #WBTWD

Friday was Winter Bike to Work Day but I missed it. I was in Toronto for a concert Thursday night and took the Greyhound back to Guelph Friday morning. No bike for me!

I said on Friday, I’d ride today. And then the forecast. More “special weather.” Snow, blowing snow, winds. All this on top of ice from last week’s “special weather.” On the upside, only -7. Whee!

I was still on the fence when the Finnish embassy shared this photo.

Image may contain: bicycle and outdoor

“1000 out of 1200 kids in this school in Oulu, Finland, arrive by bicycle, even in winter. 100-150 walk, rest by ski, kicksleds and car. This day it was -17°C. “

My Finnish friends all shared it approvingly in light of Ontario school and university closures last week.

So in the end, I rode my bike to work. I figured the worse that would happen is that I’d walk my bike and walking was my back up choice anyway. The side streets were too slippy, snow over ice. The bike path on the main road hadn’t been plowed. So I took the lane and rose with traffic. It was fine. No one was going anywhere fast anyway.

And here I am at work.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, eyeglasses, outdoor and nature
commute · cycling · snow · winter

Riding in the cold and the snow: A how-to, complete with bonus fashion tips!

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, outdoor and closeup
Image description: Sam’s snow selfie in her white bike helmet, pink/red cycling jacket, and pink possibly clashing pink buff.

Why ride in the winter? Here’s one reason: Snow commuting, still faster than driving.

It’s also a very practical thing for me right now. I don’t own a car or a campus parking pass. With my “bad knee” I can’t always walk to work. And perversely I like riding in bad weather: Twelve reasons why Sam loves biking in the wind, the rain, and the cold.

But it also can feel absolutely magical when there are very few cars out and everyone is driving slowly and I feel super visible. I love to watch snow fall. I love crunching through the snowy back streets. Partly, I think, it’s because I love winter but I have to be moving fast to stay warm. Sometimes walking just doesn’t cut it, but biking? Biking in the snow can feel great.

But I get asked a lot, how do you do it? Don’t you get cold?

It’s partly a matter of having the gear but it’s also a matter of moving. I complained once to a year round commuting colleague about getting cold and he said I wasn’t riding fast enough/working hard enough. There’s truth in that.

I’m not a fan of the cold but up to -10 I’m very happy winter riding. I actually get colder walking. And when I drive? I never park nearby and so I have to walk in quite a ways. On driving days I tend to skimp on the outer wear (my fault, I know) and I do get cold. I get more cold sitting in the cold car waiting it for it to warm up and de-ice than I do just hopping on my bike and riding to work.

I often arrive at work warm and sweaty, not cold and shivery.

What do I wear?

First, there’s my high visibility jacket. It’s red, see above, but looks pink because it’s got loads of white reflective dots. See the video below. It’s windproof and I wear a warm sweater underneath when it’s cold.

Second, there’s my pricey amazing cycling gloves. They’re Sugoi Firewal XTs. Reviewed here.

I don’t wear fancy shoe covers but I do own them. My commute is too short. Instead, I go for thick smart wool socks in my cycling shoes.

Third, I wear a merino wool buff under my helmet that can either go under my helmet like a hat or around my neck as a scarf.

Image may contain: bicycle

Fourth, I wear winter cycling tights.

But what about work clothes? Underneath the cycling tights I wear either tights or leggings and often a black t-shirt of some kind and throw a dress or jacket on top when I get there. I tend to keep all my work jackets in my office. That’s my go-to work uniform. It means I don’t have to run off to change to get back on my bike and I can ready for meetings fast if I need to.

Here’s an example of long jacket over cycling friendly clothes.

But what about the snow and slipping?

This year for Christmas I got snow tires for my commuting bike. (Thanks Jeff!) The winter bike tires aren’t studded. They’re Continental top contact and they’re more like car tires. Here’s the Mountain Equipment Co-op description: “Studless tires for northern winter, these ones grip when other cyclists are left spinning their wheels. Hundreds of lamellae (tiny biting edges, like those found on gecko’s feet) interlock with slick road surfaces.” So far: they work.

So, I know it’s not for everyone. And I get that. I really do. But I also love riding to work. I’m happy when I get here and I’m happy when I get home. A few minutes on my bike will do that. And the people who ask me how to do it and what gear you need seem serious. I don’t think they’re all humoring me. So here’s my ‘how-to commute in the snow and the cold.’

Oh, also, I have good lights!

UPDATE: Please come ride with me. International Winter Bike to Work Day is February 8, 2019. Commit to ride at: WinterBikeToWorkDay.org

#wbtwd#winterbiketoworkday

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